Weights and Measures

Sometimes stuff just gets lost in translation. You know, like when you order the thing which you think is vegetables, but you get jellied horse nose instead.

It’s simply the wrong kind of unexpected, and usually it puts one in the kind of bad mood that’s reserved for politicians who’ve recently been bust sticking their wieners into illegal immigrants.

At a birthday lunch for one of my closest friends, the birthday boy (it’s such an awful description, but I’m drunk and it’s the best I can do right now) started to tell the story of how the recipe that he’d found for Osso Bucco and was keen to try, called for a gremolata (basically a herby, citrusy paste) at the last stage, and his inclusion of it as written basically turned the whole thing into an orange meat-soup because the amount of orange the recipe called for was that overwhelming. It was horrible, and he was crushed. Plus his wife laughed at him about it, and that’s not fun for anyone,

It’s a feeling that I’m awfully familiar with, because I’ve done it – I almost killed a girlfriend with a potato-salad that called for a Richard Nixon-insanity level of garlic. And it’s annoying because no-one involved thinks that they’ve done anything wrong, but clearly nothing’s worked out for anyone and now we’re just left with orange-gravy and hungry people. So, this isn’t just a spewed list of bad recipes (although don’t even bother with any of the Moro books, because not a single one of those fucking things has ever worked for me), but just a couple of things I’ve noticed over the years and now just accept as rules of thumb when it comes to cooking from recipes that aren’t from around here.

Because lets face it, things up north are decidedly different; they use stoopid electrical plugs, they call it “the lav”, they think Mars Bars are better than Bar Ones. Clearly not everything they say can be trusted.


Whenever a European recipe defines a certain amount of garlic, usually halve it. If it’s Jamie Oliver, cut it by two-thirds. I’m not being a garlic fascist here, because I love the crap out of the stuff – it’s just that maybe our garlic is stronger, or the bulbs bigger or something, because there’s no way humanly possible that the writers of certain recipes intended for the flavours to be that dominant. The amount of garlic that they generally proscribe would put someone in intensive care with face burns.


Triple the cooking time proscribed for potatoes, especially when they mention boiling. Maybe our potatoes are harder, but there’s sure as hell no potato that I know of that gets boiled in 20 minutes.


Cut it by a third, sometimes a half. Again, it’s an issue of strength or intensity, but seemingly our lemons and oranges cut through flavours a lot harder than normal. Of course not all lemons are created equal, but in these instances, I’d go softly-softly, tasting after each addition until you’ve reached a level that you’re comfortable with.


Especially in the South African context. The flavour is definitely more intense, the meat in need of a little more care and slower attention, especially Karoo lamb, than its clearly pussy northern cousin. If the trick with lamb is ‘low and slow’, then our lamb needs to be even lower and and even slower. Like a special-needs child. Otherwise what you’ll get is a gamey, stringy lump that tastes of regret. Do it right however and you’ll get that favour that is genuinely and rightly world-renowned.


Another less-is-more approach – but this I have no explanation for, considering we all most likely import our saffron from similar places. Even Rick Stein – whose measurements are generally really really good, can be a little heavy-handed with it sometimes. Instead of cutting by a specific percentage, I generally just tend towards being slightly more conservative with my measurements.

Fresh herbs

The one thing that tends to go in the opposite direction I think are our fresh herbs, especially thyme. I don’t think ours have nearly the intensity of flavour that you get in the Northern hemisphere, and so I usually tend to double the amounts when the recipes call for fresh herbs – especially thyme, marjoram, sage and organum. Basil isn’t so dire, and parsley and coriander are around about par. Of course dried herbs are dried herbs and a lot more consistent, and so that should stay pretty much as set out from whatever recipe you happen to be using.


The same thing goes for our tomatoes, which are insipid and morose compared to their northern siblings. If possible I like to try and slice them up or chop them, then very lightly salt them before use, just to give them a bit of the kick that seems to have been leached out of them by being in a country with too much sun and too little respect.

There are probably *loads* more of these sort of things, but I’m too lazy to think of them now or they just haven’t occurred to me yet. So, if there are any more that you’ve experienced, put them in the comments section.

In the meantime, here are some pictures from the lunch where the whole idea for this story staggered into my head in the first place. The restaurant is Il Tartufo in Johannesburg, and is sincerely one of the best Italian places I’ve been to in a long time. It’s as expensive as fuck, and don’t even bother with the wine-list because the mark-ups are at least 300% – but the food is just wonderful.




3 thoughts on “Weights and Measures

  1. So, my friend Claire posted a comment on my Facebook page, which I thought I’d post here, just because it’s a fantastic explanation for the potato conundrum. It totally turns out that it’s just science you guys.

    Claire Proudfoot: On hold to a boring call centre so have time to be totally geeky: Boiling point of water in Johannesburg is considerably lower than most of Europe as it is much higher above sea level than Naples or London. My primary school teacher told us it was 98 degrees in JHB but google and wiki say 91-94 degrees. So (naturally) potatoes take longer to boil.

    Turns out I was paying absolutely no attention in school chemistry.

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